Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Janitor

I've been a high school janitor for a few months, and I can't help but feel like there's a sitcom in it somewhere. Oh, sure, there have been janitors as characters on sitcoms (that guy on Scrubs, for example), but surely there are endless comedic situations that could arise from, say, scraping gum off of a locker room floor, or sweeping up hot Cheetos ad nauseum. Then again, maybe not. It's not so much funny as mundane. Maybe I won't submit my script to NBC and Netflix after all.

I've done janitorial work before, and nothing makes you appreciate the people who clean up after everyone else like being one of those people. If they (we) didn't take out your trash, sweep your floors, clean your toilets, all that stuff would be dirty. You're welcome. Glad to be of service, especially when there's a paycheck at the end of it. I'll be honest, though: it grates on me the tiniest bit that I'm continually cleaning up messes that I didn't make.

Cleaning up is a big deal. We talk a lot about garbage in America, after all: how much of it we produce, how we recycle some of it, where it all ends up. When I was a kid, we used to go to the county dump. The dump, if you've never been to one, is really an impressive feat of engineering in a way. It's a huge hole in the ground, but the hole also moves because once you fill a hole up, you need a new one. You would drive your vehicle almost to the edge of the hole, and, yes, dump all your stuff down in it. I was three or four the first time I saw it. It almost seemed like a treasure finding excursion, and less like a trash heap. Growing up with only flat land as far as the eye could see, any change in topography made you take note.

One time at the dump, my mother saw a man throwing out a cash register. It was an antique of sorts, like something you might have seen in Little House on the Prairie at Oleson's Mercantile, with big metal buttons that made metal plates arise behind glass that would reveal the price. She asked if she could have it for me. I loved stuff like this, simple machines that weren't automatic. I'm still intrigued by how those mechanisms function. I remember distinctly seeing the cash register on the side of the man's truck, precariously balanced on the edge, wondering if it would fall into the abyss of refuse below. Luckily, he decided to give it to us, and although it seems to have gotten lost over time, for a while it was my favorite toy. It was noisy as all get out as well, which I'm sure my parents appreciated.

As the saying goes, one's man trash is another man's treasure. I'm sure there is some psychological connection between that day at the dump, and my love for garage sales and thrift stores. On occasion, I have found something I wanted in the trash set out for the garbage truck. Lately, I've been wondering what we should be doing with our collective cultural trash. Specifically, I have thought quite a bit about how we discard people who have wronged our social conscience in ways that assail our deepest sense of right and wrong. In short, what do we do with people who have done something bad enough to want to kick them out of the humanity club?

When I worked in student ministry, I taught at length about how grace and forgiveness accomplishes what wars, laws and power cannot. I believe this is true, absolutely. That new-ish dictum (that sounds old), "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind", I suppose is true. Someone has to be the bigger person when there has been wrongdoing, or we'll just keep on warring, firing salvos (or bullets) until the carnage becomes too much or we're simply out of resources. So, our goal should always be changed hearts and minds, and you don't really do that by having power over someone. You lead by example, by showing how efficacious and fulfilling walking a path of love and compassion can be. Again, I believe that to be true.

And so when have these national dialogues on topics like race or sexual abuse, it gets me wondering how we can bring the idea of grace into those conversations. We really desire to write people off when they've done something egregious. But those people still exist, they still live, just like their victims. I can't help but think that anyone who is penitent of hurtful behaviors still has value, and that we shouldn't be done with them. I also feel that way about people who aren't penitent, although admittedly that is a far more difficult course to navigate. Either way, the ideal, I believe, is that no one is too far from turning it around.

We love stories about people who have, in fact, done that very thing. Sarah Silverman featured a former Westboro Baptist member (and relative of pastor Fred Phelps) on her show, I Love You, America. And while it is wonderful that this person has made the shift from being so hate-filled, to me it begs the question: are we willing to give that opportunity of acceptance to other people who have engaged in sexual assault or abuse? Who have spewed racist diatribes? Right now, in this climate, I don't think we are. Are we willing to do this wonderful, yet extremely difficult thing that Jesus said: "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." Do I feel for these victims? Absolutely. We need to do everything we can to stop evil acts of all kinds. But I truly believe that part of how you accomplish that is grace and forgiveness. And as much as we must call out the harm and injury caused (and we should without equivocation), we must also figure out how to navigate restitution and resolution. Grace offers a kind of resolution that punishment never will.

Instead, we want to put these people in the dump, right? I mean, that's what we truly desire in our heart of hearts. And I get it. I do, too. We've all been hurt in some way. And there is a part of us that wants those who have hurt us to hurt in the same way. Or, even more so, we want them gone, to never exist. But it won't solve anything. We all know this. It won't remove the hurt. It won't heal the trauma. It will just give us a moment of elation at the revenge we've been handed, which will vanish, and be refilled with the sadness, the mistrust, the abject hatred. We want to discard them like so much detritus. But they're not. They're still human beings, and still have worth.

As I've posted about earlier, our family recently went through a difficult time, and it was because of what I believe were wrong-minded and myopic decisions made by a group of folks who I trusted. The whole thing hurt. And I don't want to forgive. But as I vacillate back and forth between grace and frustration, I also know that I don't want to miss what might be a greater thing if I forgive. If I close that door altogether, I might miss a chance for reconciliation, which could be far better than what I have now. I don't want to pray for those who have caused me pain. I don't want to love people who have a desire to see me hurt. But I can't conceive of any other way to foster some kind of environment where pain receives its full resolution if I don't. And I don't see any other path to repairing what might be wrong either in my life, or the lives of those who wrong us, if we don't seek that kind of reconciliation. I'll admit, depending on the day, I'm not sure if I'll choose forgiveness.

After all, the last thing anyone wants to hear when they have been wronged is that they can be a positive influence on the person that has wronged them. How is that my job, right? It can't possibly fall to me to help the person who injured me so deeply. I really do understand that. And this might be where some people won't sign on to what I'm writing here. But, in the arena of human behavior, we are all janitors in this respect: we are all here to clean up each other. I really believe it. I don't want to do it sometimes, just like I don't want to sweep up yet more pieces of candy, or mop a floor for the third time this week because some kid can't seep to stop spilling Gatorade under his desk. But, whatever you think about our existence, whatever religion or non-religion you espouse, I can't help but think that we might as well be about the business of helping each other limp to the finish line. Like being a janitor, sometimes for the greater good, we fix what we didn't break, we clean what we didn't sully, because that's our best practices for the situation at hand.

I showed this video at youth group a couple of times, and it always gets me. It gets me because it illustrates, I believe, the power of forgiveness and grace. I leave you with it (my apologies for the somewhat cheesy editing at the end).

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Fire(d) Guy

For the last couple of weeks I've been rolling through episodes of The Office (U.S. version). If you're a fan of the show, you know that the character Ryan Howard earns the nickname "The Fire Guy" when he accidentally burns a cheese pita in the office toaster oven. He is then chided by the others with them singing "Ryan started the fire" to the tune of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire".

In the episode, Ryan makes a point to tell the documentary crew that he doesn't want to be at Dunder Mifflin long enough to have a "thing", something that he's known for. The character's history, however, went through a number of changes during the run of the series, and if nothing else, it illustrates well how our intent and our plans can fall askew for good or ill because these choices aren't always up to us, and because our choices have these repercussive trails that we never anticipate.

I've written at length here on the work of ministry, and shared quite a bit personally. I do that because I like to write, I like to share, and I hope that maybe someone reads what I write and they get something out of it. That's why everyone writes, I suppose. People who write often say that they do so in an effort to let others know that they are not alone. I also think that people write so that they can feel that they are not alone, in hopes that, when appropriate, people will respond. People like to share of themselves for validation, and there isn't anything wrong with that in the right context. In fact, people who share the right things in the right contexts are often heralded and praised. Then there are those who are seen as "oversharers", people who give too much of their lives, and as a result are seen as needy. Hopefully I fall into the former and not the latter category. What I share here has been on my mind for a time, and I share it not just in light of recent events in our lives, but as a result of my experiences ministry over the last two decades.

In ministry, people like their pastors to be transparent. I've worked at five churches and I've heard this word (or the idea) a lot. In one church where I served, there were people who complained that the pastor's drapes at the parsonage were always closed, and the implication was that he had something to hide. It seems that people expect to have some window (usually figurative) into their pastors' lives, and in my last two decades I've always tried to do that. Why hide, I feel, when you'll be found out eventually? And the longer I've worked in churches, the more honest and free I have felt to share my opinions, my struggles, my victories. People have reciprocated, and that closeness can often be a wonderful thing. The first time I was hospitalized for a bi-polar episode, I was certain I would be fired. Instead, the church body supported me in amazing ways. Being honest about that struggle allowed me to minister to those who also struggle with mental illness. You and I both know it can cut both ways for sure, but I still feel that honesty is the best policy. It's the only way you know if you're on the same page with someone else.

In September, I was fired from my fifth ministry. It was the first time I've ever been fired from anything, and I was genuinely surprised. There had been a few bumps in the recent past, but I felt like those were getting ironed out and really was blindsided. I still am. I was not, as so many people are, asked to resign explicitly. I was not offered that courtesy, but I was told that it was not an indictment on me or my ministry work. There has been plenty that happened at the time and since then that causes me serious concern, frustration, confusion, and anger. We all know, of course, that there is nothing new under the sun, but we also know that when it happens to you, when it's personal, it seems new, and it certainly has been new to me and my family. The toll on us has been far greater than I would have imagined, even though I always knew that being let go at the drop of a hat from any church I served was a possibility. Seeing the toll, however, on my wife and son was difficult, and I was not prepared for seeing that emotionally at all. I knew the statistics about pastoral turnover and heard many stories. After all, I'd seen it done to my friends and co-workers. But I didn't think so much about things like my son no longer attending the only youth group he's ever known, or the abrupt end to fellowship with people we have worked with in the ministries I oversaw.

The difficultly with which we have struggled over the last couple months started a line of thought about all those other times when I've seen or heard of pastors being fired. The stories are seemingly endless. And every time I have seen or heard of it, it's never been done in a way that I would consider Biblical or with integrity. It seems that honesty tends to take a hit as these scenarios play out. And, put simply, that's not how God's people are supposed to interact with each other, or anyone, for that matter. It has, for example, always saddened me when I have seen other churches "ask for resignations" and attempt to cover themselves (and sometimes their leaving staff) instead of just being honest. I don't understand that. I've seen leaders dance around questions about why staff are let go. I don't understand that. I have heard several things about myself that were and are simply not true in the last couple months. I don't understand that. I've seen churches pass on bad pastors (and even give them good references) after they fired them so that they could "move them along" and get them out as quickly as possible, passing the problem of a bad pastor along to another church. I don't understand that. And I don't understand it because we are called to be people of integrity and honesty. We don't get a pass just because something is hard or uncomfortable. But not only that, the whole culture of how we deal with the firing (and hiring) of pastors in the church has to change.

I've been on the outside of a number of firings and I've never seen them handled well. In my experience, the leadership always circles the wagons instead of simply telling the truth. Starting with the way we speak of a separation, we should just be forthright: asking for a resignation isn't someone resigning, it's someone being terminated. It is. Why pretend? Is it because you say you want the leaving pastor to be able to say he resigned (which is a lie) or because you want to be able to say that you didn't outright fire him (which is also a lie). When I apply to church positions, their questionnaires sometimes ask if you have been asked to resign anyway, so you can either lie and maybe get to the next level in the interview process, or tell the truth and be summarily thrown out. I've been in many hiring meetings: those resumes get thrown in the "no" pile, sometimes with a laugh or a snide comment.

So I think we need integrity in that process, and also in our hiring process as well. I've also sat in enough hiring meetings to know that there are all kinds of reasons why a church doesn't hire someone, and here are a just a few of those that I've heard: "he wears a suit, he doesn't wear a suit, he was divorced thirty years ago, his wife couldn't come with him to the interview, his car was messy, his pants were wrinkled, he didn't have enough energy even though the kids liked him, he's too old, he's too young, he might be black (yes, I did hear this), he wrote something on his blog I didn't agree with." Ok, I get it. Organizations have cultures. Churches are no different. And they are looking for a cultural fit. But I've always encouraged any search team I've been a part of to pray first because we don't choose with human wisdom, we choose who God leads us to, right? Culture doesn't triumph over God's leading. And so it seems to be that talking about concerns you might have, and allowing the pastoral candidate to be honest, would be the best way to move forward. But we know the game, and that game is that neither side shows their cards. Instead, pastors are forced to make themselves look perfect, and elders are forced to make their church look as welcoming as possible. How could that possibly benefit the kingdom? Both pastors and churches have their cracks and both sides know they do; it's better to know what those cracks are up front because whether or not both sides can handle each other's flaws is what makes a bond strong. Marriages are a great example of this. The flaws of spouses are what cause divorce, not the commonality. Maybe that's an honest discussion worth having, instead of asking the benign "what is your greatest flaw?" question, which usually results in some milquetoast answer that really ends up being a strength. What interviewee or church elder in their right mind is going to answer, "I struggle with lust in my heart." They won't. Instead, they'll just keep on looking at porn and hiding it because that's the game. I've had questionnaires that have asked me about overeating and my relationship with my father. All at once, I see the value in a conversation about our struggles, but also see how overreaching questions like that are. Ideally, the body shares its challenges, but in that context it's all one sided. You're picking apart someone, essentially, making sure you find the perfect (sometimes, literally) candidate.

But it's not supposed to be that way in the church. In fact, we're supposed to confess our sins to one another. When was the last time any pastor really felt that they could do that, be up front about their struggles? Remember that any pastor you hire isn't an outsider; he or she is already on your team, on your side, working for the same goal. They are just as much a part of the kingdom as you and the other members of the church are, and when you treat them like hired help instead of an equal brother or sister, you are diminishing their ministry and their work. But, that's the rub: in the ways that I've seen pastors fired, including myself, you have to see them as a mere hireling to simply cut them loose from your part of the kingdom. Surely there is something very wrong with that, because there is no expression of forgiveness, restoration or unity in the body. That's wrong and sinful.

When I interview with churches, I now make a point to tell them I have bi-polar disorder. I don't know that I have always done so in the past, because I played the game and I knew that the conversation would probably end there. But why should I hide how God has helped me and used me through that affliction? I also speak out about things when I believe that they are unfair, and I have sometimes strong political opinions that I have never voiced in any teaching position at any church where I've served because I think that's an abuse of the pulpit. I do however express those opinions in private conversations and social media because I believe those opinions to be informed by Scripture.  So isn't better for a church to know that up front? And I get it: some churches don't like that. But I also know that they should see who they're getting if they happen to want to hire me. It does no one any good when you box someone in on your church staff regarding their feelings, emotions, opinions, and struggles. But that cordoning off starts right there in the interview room. I'll be honest: I've pondered deleting posts and a few times have taken some down because I didn't want a church to get the wrong impression. I did it because I felt that I had to play the game, even though I feel that I share nothing that goes against what I read in the Bible. On the contrary, I hold those opinions precisely because of what I read in the Gospels and elsewhere.

So being transparent gets it all out in the open. When you are transparent in ministry, you are giving some power to those around you, but you are also empowering yourself to be who God created you. I look at the ministries of Jesus, Peter and Paul, and I see honesty. Sometimes brazen honesty. I see differences of opinion. I see struggle. I see purposeful conflict that resolves for the greater good of the kingdom. I see a closeness that I think many, if not most, churches will never experience, and it's because everyone had a voice. I know of churches that buy the silence of those they fire via extended severance agreements. But the truth is that if a church or a pastor does something wrong, either side has the biblical right to accountability, and the biblical responsibility to work through it even if a separation is the best thing for both parties. You'll never have the closeness, accountability or love of the early church utilizing such practices. Imagine the church at Corinth letting Paul go from his duties as evangelist, and telling him that they would give him a princely sum if he would keep his mouth shut about what goes on there. How well would that go over?

I think, maybe, the confusion about honesty is that we all have to think the same way, hold all the same opinions, etc. While there certainly is an orthodoxy attached to the Christian faith, there is so much that this orthodoxy does not contain. We believe that everyone in our tribe has to think the exact same way, but it wasn't that way in the early church. Paul address such issues when he talks about holy days and meat sacrificed to idols. On a personal level, I've had people express on social media that no one should be leading students unless that are absolutely pro-life, including exceptions for rape or the life of the mother. On a national level, almost a year ago we saw a pro-women march exclude women because of their pro-life views. This just proves that we all do it: we all go to our corners and reaffirm our rightness, and exclude anyone who doesn't sign on for all of it. I gotta be honest: unless I see it explicitly in the teachings of Christ, I can't do it. I can't take the rest of the church culture and what it's become lock, stock, and barrel. This also goes for those around me as well. How ridiculous would it be to expect everyone to acquiesce to my opinions that fall outside the scope of the Gospel?

And problematically, one of the extrabiblical things that we've seemingly signed on for is the way we treat church leaders (both pastors and elders sometimes, too) as if they are lesser, as if not all the rules of Christian engagement apply, all the while putting them up on a pedestal from which they will inevitably fall, and believe me, we will. I'll be honest: I'm not having it, and you shouldn't either. Sometimes, the questionnaires churches give you in the interview process read less like a "get to know you" sheet and more like a perfect moral and political litmus test. I often just feel like writing at the top, "I'll do my best to live as I see Christ has lived, to emulate his life and teachings. I will fail, and when I do, I will get back up and try again." What else is there, really? The pastoral epistles only serve to illuminate this very idea, and are less of a checklist and more of a fleshing out of what makes a good servant leader.

I know that some of this post will probably render me unemployable in certain circles. It took me two and a half years to find a full time ministry position last time, and I suppose I don't expect this time around to be any more expedient. And that was without expressing my honest opinion about what the hiring and firing process is like. But, you get sick of pretending, you know? Pretending that you always did or said the right thing, or thinking that the church you're serving totally mirrors and follows what you see in the book of Acts. You get tired. Because I have screwed up at times, maybe even many times: I haven't always been Christ-like. Sometimes, I've reacted to hurts in ways that did no one any good. Sometimes, I've lied and said that the church where I was serving was on the right track, when what I really should have said was that we needed a call to repentance, myself included. There have been people I've dismissed or haven't reached out to when I should have. But that's it right there: I'm telling the truth about my flaws, and when I have done so, I don't think it has ever done me any favors even though I feel that this is how the church is supposed to function. In the last few months, I'll admit, I have been more honest, and I'm pretty sure it hastened my demise. But I wonder what would happen if Christians were more honest with each other? Not in an offensive way, but in ways that they felt like they could be open about their own thoughts, doubts, and feelings without feeling the pressure to conform to all of those extrabiblical things? What would that church look like? What if Christians decided to resolve conflict without pushing an agenda or being the loudest voice? How would a church treat their pastors when they were hiring them or letting them go? Would they help them find another ministry, offer training, or counseling? What would a more honest, submissive and loving exchange look like in those scenarios? I don't know, but I sure would like to.

I never thought I'd be let go from a ministry. I'm not sure if that was naivete or hubris or a little of both, but now I have. Like so many of my fellow pastors, I'm "the fired guy." And many of them have been great at reaching out, sharing their stories, and being generally encouraging and wonderful. I have no idea if I'll ever work at a church again, but I like the work of ministry. At its best it can be fun, creative, and extremely rewarding. But it can put you through a slice of hell, no hyperbole intended. So, churches, when you pull that trigger and hire (or fire), make sure you're doing it the absolute right way. You are making life changing decisions for a pastor and his or her family. Think twice and pray at least that much before you give someone either the label of pastor or former pastor.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Point

Harry Nilsson wrote this really cool cartoon musical called "The Point". It's about a people who all have pointed heads except for one boy named Oblio: he has a round head. In a story line straight out of the book of Esther, a count reminds the king that, by law, everyone has to have a literal point on their head. So even though they love Oblio, he is banished from their kingdom, but only for a time. After his travels outside the kingdom, he comes back to reveal to everyone that all things have a metaphorical point even if they don't have an actual point. 

Admittedly, Nilsson said he was inspired to write this story and musical after an acid trip. But I suppose you can deny the truth behind it: everybody has a point, a reason, a value. 

I was talking to Summar the other day about the handful of youth pastor Facebook groups of which I'm a part. Along with the usual discussions about curriculum and discipline issues, there seem to be an inordinate amount of posts about the conflict: with elders, with senior pastors, with other people on youth ministry teams, with parishioners in general. A lot of these posts involve people in the church pushing the youth pastor/leader out of their position; some of these involve other adults in these churches meeting with students without the student minister, or perpetually causing drama in student ministry situations. Pre-Facebook I knew of stories like this, but the frequency with which they are posted is disheartening and shocking to me.

I read these posts (and again it bares saying that there are a lot of them) and wonder how we've missed the point so many times. And I feel conflicted: I know that I've not led a single ministry perfectly. I am, to a fault sometimes it seems, acutely aware of my deficiencies, of which there are quite a few. But I would never presume to take a ministry from someone else. In my thinking, it seems you're messing with something that God has ordained. And I don't mean that people shouldn't be removed from ministries, but there are God-ordered and appropriate ways to do such things. To take something that isn't yours is mere thievery. 

Most of the time these conflicts lack even a modicum of grace. There are certainly youth pastors who are deficient to the point that they must be removed, and this isn't a blanket defense of all pastors in all situations. But the way in which many of these stories unfold seem to be an adventure in missing "the point". After all, the statistic that youth pastors last an average of eighteen months (at least that's what it was when I went to school) should give the church pause. 

If you attend church, you have heard it, time and again: we all have gifts. We are all loved by God. God has a plan for us all, etc., etc. If you hear sermons regularly, you've probably heard these concepts over and over. My guess is that the players in those Facebook posts have heard it, too. And yet, there seems to be a lot of church folk who don't want to apply that truth to everyone, including, on occasion, their pastoral staff. As Sly Stone sang, "We got to live together." And yes, we got to. That's how this church thing works. 

Pastors are reticent to say it at times, but I will: we trained for this work. Just like you trained for your work. And we not only trained, but many of us have done it for decades. We are not infallible, but we speak and decide from experience. And even if a pastor and leader is young and new, it's likely that they have blind spots that they haven't filled in yet. There is no doubt that, if the roles were reversed, these people would want and need the grace to find their footing. So they need gentle guidance and support. And yet, in so many of these stories I read, among the body of Christ who collectively is supposed to bear each other's burdens, that grace and gentleness is simply gone. 

And that is the point: we all bear each other's burdens in the body of Christ. There isn't an asterisk that says "*except for pastors" or "*except for elders" or "*except for people who we disagree with". It doesn't work like that. And while this post is specifically about pastors, I think church people could stand to be nicer to each other in general. After all, that is a part of our "point", that life that God said we are to lead. It's all over the New Testament:

"Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification." (Romans 14:9)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

"Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you." (2 Corinthians 13:11)

"You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But don't use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love." (Galatians 5:13)

"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love." (Ephesians 4:2)

When I worked at a shipping company during my college years, I spent a week training on how to sort packages and load trucks and planes. When we finally went to the floor to start the actual work, one of my fellow trainees complained: "When we were trained, they said we were supposed to do things a certain way. When we got down here, it's not like any of that." At first I thought, "Well, yeah...that's how this stuff works. It's never like the ideal that you're given initially." But the church IS supposed to work hard toward that ideal, even if we never quite make it. I read these stories in these groups and sometimes it feels like people aren't even trying. And we really don't have that option. We'll get it wrong, we'll make it messy, we'll screw it up, but we have to keep trying. If you are a Christian, you don't get to opt out. 

One time, in a particularly tense leadership meeting right after one of the pastoral staff had been let go, I shared with the leadership what it's like to start and leave a ministry. I shared that when you come to a new church in a pastoral role, that's most likely all you know. You only the know the people there. You have uprooted yourself and your family and everything you know (and in many cases pulled yourself away from the rest of your family) to come to a place you don't know much about to serve a people that you're only marginally familiar with. You're trying your best to fit into what is going on, and at the same time you want to be yourself and also assimilate in a way that is true to you and your gifts and calling. On top of that, your social structure, at least initially, emanates entirely from your new church. All the people you know attend there. People call and visit to encourage, for sure, and also, on occasion, to vent their frustrations and sometimes even get you on "their side", whatever that even means. You sometimes even live in a church parsonage, so even your home is tied to church. Either way, when people come to visit, some make note of how your home is kept. In general, some people in your church family comment on your appearance, your car, your child. I've had more than one person talk about my son in a negative way to other people in the church after a church service. 

I shared in that meeting that, because of all of this, church is your life. You can't leave anything "at the office". You're always on call and available. You never truly leave. For those of you who have jobs like this, you know how tiring this can be. Even then, there aren't that many professions besides pastoral work where most your friends are also your fellow workers or volunteers, and at any moment could be people you are also counseling through trials like divorce and death. You fill more roles in the lives of the people you know than any other work that I can think of. When you are asked out to social functions or you attend activities in the community, you are always "on". You don't get to not be on the clock. People at your church see you in stores and restaurants. They sometimes note what you wear, what you said or didn't way, how you talked to a cashier. 

And then, when you leave or are asked to leave, it's like putting the film in reverse. All those roots you planted (because you have to plant them to get involved in the lives of the people in your church so that you can minister to them) are pulled up. If you live in a parsonage, your house may be gone. If you were asked to resign, you were uprooted immediately. If you resigned simply because it was time, you may still have people angry at you (or, even worse, do a happy dance, which I've seen). If you are leaving on bad terms, the majority of the people you've spent years pouring into will never speak to you again, even if they personally had no issue with you. Your child(ren) has to change schools, make new friends, and leave the church that they have grown up in. 

So I shared some of this in that difficult meeting, and afterward, an elder came up to me and said, "I never thought about it like that." And I think that's the problem: most people don't. They know what it's like to leave a job; they may know what it's like to relocate and leave family. But few know what I would consider to be the unique situation of a leaving pastor. You may disagree. And while I have enjoyed the vast portion of my last twenty years of pastoral work (and I truly have), that doesn't mean that it doesn't hold unique challenges. 

And so when I read those Facebook posts about how people have turned on those youth pastors, all of those things go through my mind. It very much saddens me. When I resigned at one of my churches, I asked one of the leaders how long they wanted me to stay on. He said, in an increasing volume until he was literally yelling at the top of his lungs, "Where I work, you don't stay on. We escort you out. That's it. You have no more time." I stayed there two more months, but he wouldn't speak to me after that. Keep in mind that I resigned and left there on good terms, and I was close to this person before I resigned. Some invisible line had been crossed, I suppose. 

So, my exhortation to all believers is this: don't miss the point. Living in communion with one another is about love and grace. And although I've written mostly about pastors, it's true for everyone in your church body. You are obliged to live, as far as it is possible, at peace with everyone. I share this post not to illustrate how tough pastoral life is. A lot of people have tough jobs, and everyone is fighting their own battles on a daily basis. But I want people to know that, by and large, your pastors and church leaders are trying. They're wrestling. They want to do the right thing. I know there are exceptions. But don't forget that we are all, in the most important way possible, on the same team. That is the point. Don't miss it. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Everyday I Write the Book

I'm coming up on my twentieth anniversary in ministry. I was ordained on January 1, 1997 (my birthday!). I guess I can't really count the year-ish we spent in Nashville, so next January, that will be around twenty years.

I never thought I'd do anything for that long.

In college I was convinced that in a couple of years I'd be touring the country in a van with three or four other guys playing songs that we'd write in hotel rooms and record in ramshackle studios. That was literally my dream, in that I sometimes actually had dreams to that effect while I slept. I was sure of it, as if I had been told that I'd be fated to this life, much like an Old Testament father names his son a word that seals his future.

Instead, I have been a paid, professional musician in a different way. And I only recently realized this. I suppose the appropriate way to look at twenty years in ministry is to look at it as twenty years of pastoral work. And that's true. That, of course, comes first. But I have also been paid to play music in that pastoral role for two decades. I really like that. I suppose, then, I did achieve my dream, and found another one in the process. This is typical of how God works, at least as much as I've understood such things.

Along the way, I've done all the other stuff of ministry: preached, counseled, taught, performed weddings and funerals, taught youth and children, etc. I've enjoyed most of it. I used to teach adults a lot, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was told early on in ministry by quite a few people that I should write a book. I am. Three, in fact. But I struggle with the tone of the book that will be about my experiences in ministry. And here's why.

My guess is, if they felt comfortable enough to be honest, that most pastors would tell you about the roller coaster ride that is ministry. And it is. I could just as easily write a book about all the kindness expressed to me and my family as I could the hurts and wounds. The surprise Christmas gifts and the surprise scathing and insulting Christmas card (yes, this happened to me). The wonderful relationships and the abrupt ends to some of those relationships. The wonderful comments about my family versus the harsh words that both my wife and son have had aimed at them. In my more negative moments, I suppose my flesh would love nothing more than to write a tell-all expose about all of the nonsense me and my friends in ministry have experienced. But, of course, that is only part of the story, and, much like most good writing, you have to tell it all. There is plenty of good, more than bad I would guess, by far. It's humbling to be told that people continually pray for your ministry, or be given a car out of the blue, or be told that you've made an impact in a student's life. Telling it all would mean taking an account of all of those wonderful, unexpected instances where God showed up through those around us. That alone would make a great read. But there's much more to the story.

I could write about my ignorance or impatience instead of the mistakes of others, feverishly scrawling all of those things I didn't know or thought I did but didn't. That would be fair and true. But most people don't really want to recount their failures and failings. Some of those are too embarrassing to conjure up for a chapter (or chapters) on what not to do. I hesitate to say I could write a book solely on that, but it would at least be booklet, if not a multi-volume tome. I'd like to think that the successes would take up more space, but I really don't care to find out.

My wife remarked the other day that our moves, our changes, have taken a toll on us, and I'd agree. If you have uprooted your family a time or two, you know this. Although we've always left churches by our own choice, it didn't always feel that way, and those separations and distant friendships sometimes make you yearn for when everything will be made right. I reminded her of something a pastor friend told me early on in ministry: don't get too close. When he said that, I scoffed in my youthful idealism. For a variety of reasons, I now understand the sentiment, even if at times I don't heed his advice. It makes me sad that anyone, no matter what role they play in church, would feel that they have to circle the wagons around themselves for protection against other believers. I'm not naive enough to think that this isn't necessary at times. But I'm idealistic enough to keep wishing it weren't so. When my wife and I have shared openly, without thought of any judgment, we've never regretted it, because it was true. I hope that's true for most pastors and most people in church in general, because we all have crud, right? And we don't just have crud that we talk about; we have crud that we'll never share. That's true for all of us, and it'd be good if we could all remember that. It'd be good for me to remember that more, for sure.

I do know that my book will talk about the unique nature of the vocation of ministry. I've gone back and forth on this over the years. I've heard pastors talk about how difficult the ministry life is, and sometimes I dismiss this summarily because I know we all have difficult situations in our work and home life. I won't say it's harder, because to do so would be to diminish the struggles all of us have. But I will reiterate that it is unique: unique because you live your life with the people you serve, and when you go home you still wear the hat of pastor. You certainly don't do that in retail, or most jobs that I can think of. Your bosses and those to whom you are accountable are also people you are called to build close relationships with, which means they get to see you at your best and your worst. This is daunting. The operative phrase now is "do life together". I know that at times the veil will fall and I won't be the best me and I can be (how's that for some 1980's self esteem phrasing!) and I know that this could hurt what I do. But I suppose, in our best moments, that's what grace is for. In those best moments, we'll give it until it hurts a little, or even a lot. And that's why it's tough. By letting people in (and by them letting you in), they are getting power (and so are you).

This is true of all relationships, of course, but I am especially mindful of it regarding pastoral work, because your close relationships, your community, and your source of income are all rolled into one. I suppose if I were to think about it, there might be other professions of which this is true. But right now, at this late hour, I can't think of one. When your vulnerability is somewhat tied to your livelihood, you feel that tension. If you cross an invisible line of expectation, you could damage relationships or possibly be fired. If you withhold too much, your ministry might not grow. And although I've had twenty years to grapple with this, there won't be much advice in my book on how to navigate this. It remains a challenge, I would guess, for most pastoral staff.

Being introverted, I prefer to write. That way, I say exactly what I want to say. I can refine it before it goes out into the world. I love that. I'd much rather text or e-mail than speak face to face, unless I'm having an in-depth conversation about apologetics or music. So the idea of compiling a book about the church I know, the good, bad, and the indifferent, is appealing. I can tell my story exactly how I want it to be told. But I don't want it to be filtered or laden with agenda. As I said before, in my more negative moments, I might want people to know about the scars. But the problem with that is it's a skewed account, and it's the kind of thing I would like to avoid at all costs. Because we're all David: murderers who are after God's own heart. Maybe not literal murderers, but you get the point. And that's the story that needs to be told, about me, about you, about everyone. You don't need redemption if there's nothing to redeem. And that's the story of the church, really: perpetual redemption, which means there's a whole lot of good coming out of a whole lot of bad. That's the book I'll write. In fact, it's the book I'm writing as we all are everyday. And it's the lesson I hope to continually learn.

Friday, February 03, 2017

It's Been a While (And Other Stuff)

It's been over two years since I've blogged. That's really odd, but I've been quite busy. Lately, I've actually had some time to think and felt like maybe it was time to jump start this thing again. The election and its aftermath have had some influence on that. I have a lot I'd like to write about that (because Facebook posts just don't cut). Maybe some day.

But today I'm thinking of childhood. I'm currently working on a collection of songs about where and how I grew up. I want to portray it all honestly without giving it all away. This project started a couple of years ago, and it began with an epiphany.

In the last decade, it seems to me anyway, there's been a lot more talk in schools about bullying. When I was in school, I remember very little "awareness" about it. If some kid bullied you, you'd either tell the teacher or take it. If you told the teacher, that'd probably be bad ("snitches get stitches" after all) and you'd probably get more of the same. If you took it, that meant that you'd probably get more of the same. Because of some of the problems my son has had in school (although it's been a lot better in the last couple of years), it made me start to think about my school days and the bullying I encountered.

It was weird because I'd never really thought about my school experience in those terms. After high school, I'd never had anyone try to do to me what kids in high school did. I'm a big guy, and although I love me some Jesus, I can be blunt and defensive when I feel a situation warrants. So I really have never had any problems during my adult life, and as time went on, I've become less and less passive (to a fault at times I'm sure) and simply forgot about the past. But a couple of years ago, all this stuff started to flood back, and I realized that my experience in school was not normal.

It was not normal to be called denigrating names day after day. It was not normal to be hit by any number of people at random times for no apparent reason. It was not normal to never be picked for anything, whether it was in a gym class or classroom setting. That was my school experience growing up, and it didn't fully end until I graduated. I was fat and poor and socially backward. This is not a great combination for social success.

As for school itself, I hated going. I loved sitting in a classroom and learning. I still do. But I absolutely loathed getting on the bus everyday knowing what awaited. I took every opportunity to miss school, and milked every sickness for all it was worth. I may have been the only kid who loved class but always missed the maximum number of days. In the last couple of years it got better. I got less awkward and made some friends. But that stuff sticks with you.

I wanted to share all this for a couple of reasons. The first is that it's just on my mind, since I'm kind of digging into that time period to pull out some ideas for lyrics. I can't say that it's really that painful because I've made whatever peace I needed to so that I could move on. I'm not the same timid kid, so I'm not perpetually bothered by any of it.

But the other reason is that I've seen the bullies come out of the woodwork in the last few months. There is some nasty speech and behavior going on, as you probably know. And whether or not we want to blame the election or politicians, the truth is that those individual people are responsible for their actions, no matter who is elected or what their ideology is. We seem to be quick to throw up epithets like "libtard" or "racist" or (and this has got to be the weirdest turn of a phrase ever), "snowflake". I mean, who would have called that as being an insult?

Anyway, we're not doing each other any favors. I could point fingers about this stuff. A part of me would like to. But it wouldn't accomplish anything and any discussion that came out of it would be charged with vitriol. We should be discussing this politics and debating the merits of policy, but no one should get to resort to bullying tactics to make their voice heard. I know that people will respond that this is the reality of the world, but that is no excuse since the reality of the world is whatever we make it. The world can be a hard place, but don't we have the strength to be better?

A seventeen year old kid killed himself this week. He'd been the subject of ongoing ridicule at both his workplace and school. Most likely, if I had my guess, he was a nice kid who was just different enough that everyone else, and he probably seemed weak. He was overweight and spoke with a speech impediment. His boss has been charged with involuntary manslaughter. I have no idea if that's the right thing to do or not. But I know that us humans love to pick at weakness, like we're chickens, mere animals who don't have the sense or will to stop.

The anonymity of the internet has obviously given us license to be more crass and outspoken. We all know this, but we're unwilling to stop it. Online behavior seems to have allowed us to be subhuman: people send death threats, call people names that they probably don't say in public (and most likely wouldn't say in front of their kids), and generally treat each other like garbage when they disagree. We have to escalate because clearly, if someone doesn't agree with us, they must not be as intelligent. I don't like to let arguments go, either, but I stop short of name calling. How does name calling prove me right? If an argument is solid, you don't need anything else, ideally.

So be nice, would ya? Seriously. Ratchet down whatever rhetoric you're engaging in that doesn't accomplish anything. If you can present your case cogently and calmly, you might actually win some folks over. Unless your goal is to just hate people who aren't like you. Now we would never do that, would we?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Nine Months in Aurora, IL

We're nine months in to a new ministry in a way-out Chicago suburb, on the edge of farms and prairie. We're living in the second largest city in Illinois, which is Aurora. You may know it from its portrayal in the movie Wayne's World. Do you remember that donut place that's in the movie? It's not here. But there's a Dunkin' Donuts just down the street. I guess that will have to suffice. 

This is our fifth ministry. Seventeen years. I turned forty this year. That's the age when you look back and take a little stock. Not too much. Just enough. Given the earlier posts on this blog, it was almost amazing that I finally found another church job (if you want a good pity party, scroll through them!). I just taught on Abraham in our student ministry, and how it can take a long time for things to align, and how God aligns things in His time. I'm not going to say that I was thrilled with our timeline: I don't think I should pretend that I understand it. But it wasn't bad at all. Hopefully the posts below echo that. I haven't read them since I wrote them.

As a return to form, today's post will talk about a musician, and some lesson that can be derived from what they did. This time around, it's George Harrison.

George was the odd beatle: not John or Paul, but not Ringo. I'm a big Harrison fan and love his solo work. But, knowing his history, he was probably never going to be received as the genius of his more prolific counterparts. In the 70's, after the Beatles' split, however, he seemed to take on the role of ex-Beatle George with aplomb: he produced artists, formed his own record label, and released the best (IMO) solo record of any Beatle, All Things Must Pass. When you listen to it, you are hearing songs written during by George concurrently during the album sessions ranging all the way back from Rubber Soul (1965) to Abbey Road (1970). Many of these were rejected for recording by the other Beatles. 

There's a Get Back-era rehearsal of George showing John the chords to "Let it Down", a great track on All Things Must Pass. The tape reveals John's disdain for the chord progression (typical of many Harrison tunes, with diminished or major seventh chords and asymmetrical progressions). It certainly wasn't straight ahead rock and roll, but it seemed like George had taken pop melody and stretched it almost into a jazz-like structure. John wasn't a fan, and it was the only rehearsal of the tune.

The span from Rubber Soul to Abbey Road was five years. That's not a long time in today's pop music landscape, but back then it was an eternity, when bands released two albums and two singles a year. That's a lot of product to put on shelves, especially if you are writing it. And it's a long time to wait to put out finished material that you are working on and completing. Imagine a group of painters telling one of their own that they can't hang most of their work up. "It just doesn't fit" or "We've already used most of our paintings" or "The wall's already full". Whether or not you're in the Beatles, you're probably not going to put up with that construct forever. 

This part of Beatles lore makes me wonder how we individually know when we're supposed to be a team player, and when we're supposed to be the star. You and I probably both know people who go out on their own, start their own business (or band), and either succeed or fail to varying degrees. How did these people know when to separate from their comfort and take the risk on becoming what they believed they could fully be? Of course, I tried something like that and failed (see earlier blog posts) and I regret a portion of that, but the good news is that it's hard to regret the experience you receive from your failures. You learn hard lessons, and that's a positive thing. I'm guessing, though, that I probably would have enjoyed it more if we would have succeeded. :)

One thing I know is that it doesn't scare me any more. We moved four times in four years (I don't recommend it) but I'm not really afraid of much. If I lose it all tomorrow (not that I'm anticipating this), I'll just get back up and start again. I feel like that whole experience made me my own person. I feel comfortable in my own skin. And in a profession (ministry) where you are sometimes encouraged to put on a facade for a variety of reasons, that can be a challenge. Happily, I don't really do that. But, as Over the Rhine would say, "Lord knows we've learned the hard way all about healthy apathy". Amen. I've learned to have passion about things that count, and be apathetic about things that don't. Hopefully, not to a fault. 

This brings us back to George. After All Things Must Pass, his solo career was inconsistent. He had quite a few albums that didn't sell, singles that tanked and a tour in 1974 which turned him off of touring for life (save for a handful of concerts in Japan). And on those post-All Things Must Pass solo records, I feel like I hear George vacillating between pop star hit maker, and spiritual guy who does his own thing. On one record in particular, Somewhere in England, the record label told Harrison to replace some songs because they were too dour and depressing. He complied, but only to a point, writing a new song called "Blood From a Clone". That's not exactly, as Nirvana would say, a radio-friendly unit shifter. My copy of this album is a cut-out, the process by which companies discount records that aren't moving. They actually "cut out" a portion of the cover to denote that it was returned to the label, which then is sent out again and sold at a far lower price. I remember in the early 80's seeing a whole cut out crate full of George's next record, Gone Troppo. After the relative failure of this record (which I love), George retreated and worked on movies (among them, Shanghai Surprise, the Madonna/Sean Peen vehicle). He "returned to form" on 1987's Cloud Nine. In interviews from that time period, it seemed like George had become what he had always at least teased: a guy who only cared about what moved him, what mattered. He did promotion, but did it on his own terms, suffering no fools in interview clips from the time. You can't live in a shadow forever, even if it's John Lennon or Paul McCartney or the Beatles mythos. He had become his own 

Just like a preacher talking about standing in judgment before God, you sometimes stand alone. Not in a bad way. But sometimes, when the time is right, when God aligns everything, it's time for you to do your thing, to do the thing that He's given you to do. And it may not be now, and it may be multiple times. It may be when you're a hundred, like Abraham, or when you're not even an adult yet, like David. And you may have to do your version of recording critically maligned bad albums to get to the really good record that you were created to make. But whatever that looks like for you, I think you'll have your time. Maybe you've already had it, and another is on the way. I hope so.

Sunday, November 03, 2013


I've written at length here about our adventure after leaving full time ministry in the fall of 2010. Long story short, we moved to Nashville to pursue a music career, found it to be a fool's errand, and felt that we should go back to full time church work.

That was two and a half years ago.

I thought that, since I had never really had a problem finding a ministry in the past (usually taking 1-2 months), that, although the wait might be a little longer, we'd soon secure another position somewhere. I grossly misjudged how difficult it would be. Below is a screen cap of my "Applied to" e-mail folder. Note the number of e-mails. I also haven't saved every rejection e-mail. Some of the names have been changed to protect

There is a certain pull to ministry, if you've been in it awhile. I'm typing this on a weekend where we are visiting one of the churches where we've served. People don't usually go back and spend a weekend at their "old job" just to visit (although they might hang out with their old work buddies), but church work isn't just a job: the people who you serve become family. When you leave, you leave because of reasons related to the job part of the ministry, but much of the time you leave in spite of the relationships you have made. I can say that this was true for all of the churches I have left. We still have friends at those places. We still miss all of our old haunts. If the work portion of our commitment had been different, we probably would still be at one of these churches.

I think if there's one thing I could get church leaders, and church people in general, to understand about ministers who leave is that ministry has a tension where it is part job, part family. And that, just because the job part may end for a variety of reasons, the family part doesn't. You don't all of the sudden stop caring for the people in your past churches just because you're not there any more. You still grieve at their losses, and rejoice their gains. Your lives become intertwined and it can be awesome and messy all at the same time. In many cases, you wish things had been different, because you didn't really want to leave. In some cases, like us, you leave simply to pursue what you feel might be a better fit or situation for you and your family. That doesn't make you a bad person. Many of the ministers I know are just trying to figure out what God wants from them when they make a move.

Pearl Jam's "Unemployable"

Those relationships that we have built are a big part of the reason why we want to do church work. The community of believers in every church is what we know, and is appealing to us. It is not perfect, and neither are we. But it is comfortable to us, in a good way. I think we were surprised at how much we missed it during our time in Nashville. Thankfully, after yet another move, we did find a church where I could work part-time, to use my gifts and to fellowship with.

I have estimated that I have applied to roughly 150 churches. Sometimes, when they rejected me, I asked them why, in the interest of self-improvement. I don't recommend doing this. I have learned several things throughout this process of continual rejection. The first one is that churches don't see you they way you see yourself. They see a very small part of who you are and what you can do. Most of what ministers do isn't quantifiable, or can be comprised into a three-minute YouTube video. For example, I have a couple of videos of me leading worship posted there. Whenever I send them with my resume, that's usually the end of the conversation with a perspective church. Unfortunately, they are the only videos I have. They certainly aren't a good representation of all the things I've done over the years, all the different ways I've led worship, or more importantly, all the people I've shared the Gospel with, musicians I've trained, people I've counseled or prayers I've prayed. It was because of these videos that one church told me that my "guitar playing or singing (were not) sufficient for you to come in and lead our people". Now, if there's one thing I'm good at, one thing in the world, it's playing guitar. But, that's the point: the video, where I'm simply playing chords with two other singers and a bass player, doesn't show virtuosity.

The second thing I've learned is that shifts in culture can age you out of your work. I've talked to several pastors who have either hired or have talked about what I call the "archetype of post-modern minister". Churches are looking for someone younger than me, more dynamic than me, more....something....than me. The irony in this is that I have been called to churches that have been a little more conservative in their approach to worship. So, all of that experience has now made me the worship leader I am. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but what churches want in a worship leader has drastically changed in the last ten years. I can do that, I can be that guy, but I have no proof that I can do that, no tangible evidence that I can be that guy.

I was bothered by several things during this time of job and soul searching, but one thing really stuck out: why are churches trying to hire a certain kind of person, while at the same time praying for the right person? Those may not be even close to the same thing. So many churches want a certain kind of personality for their pastor positions, a certain look for their worship positions, a certain energy for their youth positions. But relationships you build in ministry transcend all that. It's not about plugging in a certain component, as if thinking about people as puzzle pieces is somehow going to make your church successful. Instead of looking for the next church CEO, or the next Chris Tomlin, churches should be looking for people who care, people who want to be a part of their family. I may not look the part of the worship leader that many churches are looking for. But I think, more importantly, I feel I live the part of someone who has compassion, who is dependable, who wants the church to thrive and flourish. So, how does that make someone unemployable?